By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — At first, he had to be shown how to put on shoulder pads. His coaches feared he’d come out of the locker room with his tailbone pad in front. He was just a high school kid who enjoyed flipping burgers and cleaning pools during summers at a country club with no aspirations of one day playing in the NFL, yet alone starring in it.
There is a certain “aw shucks” quality to Eagles’ kicker Alex Henery. A playground soccer prodigy growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, he never played football until high school, went on to become a folklore legend at Nebraska, where he holds almost every single kicking record and is the powerhouse school’s all-time leading scorer, and now he’s breaking records in the NFL for the Eagles.
If there has been one shining quality to what has been an otherwise dismal season, it’s been Henery.
He’s made an Eagles’ team-record 21-straight field goals. Over the last two seasons, he’s made 38 of his last 39 attempts, and he still punishes himself for missing the 45-yard attempt on his second try of the season, in the opener at Cleveland. Otherwise, he would be a pristine 22 of 22 this season.
Since entering the NFL in 2011, Henery is 46-50 (92-percent), which makes him the second-most accurate kicker in the NFL during that span, behind only Jacksonville’s Josh Scobee (43-46, 93.5-percent).
Henery’s been one of the few—possibly only—All-Pro candidates the Eagles have had this season.
But if you know anything about Henery, it’s typical. He’s always been successful. At everything. Don’t let the “aw shucks” veneer fool you. Underneath the smiling 6-foot-2, 180-pound 25-year old, who looks like he’s 18 with his hat tucked tight over his eyes, lays a row of unseen shark’s teeth.
“Soccer was pretty much my main sport growing up, but no, I didn’t see anything like this coming,” said Henery, who graduated with an engineering degree from Nebraska. “I remember at first, I kicked it like a soccer ball, and hopefully, it went straight. This is kind of weird, because when I decided to go to college, I was actually a walk-on punter at Nebraska. I never even dreamed of playing too much there. None of the walk-ons get a chance to play too much there. It’s worked out.
“I think when you look as a kid at the typical NFL player, that’s not me. I wouldn’t think of myself being an NFL player. You kind of put them up on a pedestal and never think you can really reach that. Here I am today as one of them. I kind of look at it in disbelief as being one of them.”
Henery is—and breaking records.
His first step to the NFL began when then-Omaha Burke High School soccer coach Mike Bailey suggested he try punting and place kicking for the football team. Bailey, who still remains in close contact with Henery, was also the kicking coach for the football team.
“Al was a playground soccer legend coming in; he was among one of the top 25 players in his age group in the region and probably the most natural goal-scorer I’ve seen in my life,” Bailey said. “Al was third in the state in scoring as a freshman, broke his collarbone his sophomore year and led Nebraska in goals his junior and senior years. But Al benefitted from a great situation. Our head football coach, Jack Oholendt, knew kicking was a specialized skill.
“He was fine with us doing special teams first. They’d be gone by 4:30 so Al could get to club soccer practice. At first, I just wanted Al to come out and introduce himself to some of the older kids. That’s how we approached it. The technical skill of kicking a football from a soccer ball is a totally different skill set. They had to show Al how to put shoulder pads on. If the older kids didn’t show him, he would have come out with his tailbone pad on in the front.”
At Omaha Burke, Henery’s “wow moment” came the opening game of his sophomore year. In a game against Lincoln High, a snap flew high over Henery’s head. He retrieved the ball, dodged a tackler and somehow managed to punt it 70 yards—with a very generous roll.
Henery nonchalantly returned to the sideline. But Oholendt went crazy.
“That play just blew Coach Old’s mind,” Bailey said. “I remember him saying, ‘Geez, did he just kick it with his left foot?’ Al is right-footed and he kicked a ball 70 yards with his left foot. That’s just instinct for him. But that was probably the first time we saw Al show something. He’s always been his worst critic. Early in soccer, as a goal scorer, you might get 10 chances in a match, and you finish one. That’s a great percentage. With him, Al thought he should have scored five. Al never really golfed before, but he taught himself to golf, and became very good (a nine handicap). He gives meticulous attention to detail to everything he does. Every swing of his leg should be exactly the same. That’s why he’s so good at everything he does.”
Nebraska and the rest of the nation was introduced to Henery his sophomore season there. He had beaten out a senior scholarship kicker, and his first major moment happened against Colorado.
With the game riding on his right leg, Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini turned to Henery to boot a 57-yarder with 1:50 left to play and the Huskers trailing 31-30. Henery kicked a school-record 57-yard bolt that just caught the inside of the right upright and sent Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium into delirium.
“I think what really did it for Alex was going to [former NFL kicker] Nate Kaeding’s camps, and then working there for him,” Bailey said. “You could see Alex start to invest in the thought he could do something with kicking during the summers when he was at Nebraska. Al is kind of a folk hero in the state of Nebraska, as he should be. He comes from good, grounded parents and he’s a tenacious competitor.”
The 57-yarder in the cold against Colorado put him on the national stage—and eventually caused the Eagles to take notice and select Henery, a kicker, with their second fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft. If you look at the Eagles’ 2011 draft class, Henery, and sixth-round pick Jason Kelce, have been the only impact players selected (1st: Danny Watkins (bust); 2nd: Jaiquawn Jarrett (cut); 3rd: Curtis Marsh (marginal contribution); 4th: Casey Matthews (bust)).
Mary Henery, Alex’s mother, still gets nervous each time her son plays. She didn’t even foresee this, yet she was his first coach, when Alex was 4½ playing soccer a level up with his older brother.
“I just don’t want to see him hurt; he works very hard and he does well, but he has always been driven to do well,” Mary said. “He’s had good coaches that taught him how to control his emotions in pressure situations, and he listens well and incorporates what he’s taught. I get nervous for him. He doesn’t show it, but it’s a challenge to stand in front of all those eyes and make a big kick. No, I didn’t foresee this at all.”
Now Henery is doing commercials during the Big 10 championship game between Nebraska and Wisconsin. He’s a member of the country club where he once cleaned pools and flipped burgers, and is quietly, coolly having an unforgettable season in what has been a forgettable year for the Eagles.
A typical NFL kick takes about 1.2 seconds after the nod. Henery doesn’t think. He turns it over to muscle memory as his personal navigator. Despite the futility of everything around him, Henery will continue to put his blinders up. He’ll tune out the swirling din and he likes the pressure.
“When I go out, I try not to look up and see how far it is,” Henery said. “There is a lot more that goes into this than me, with [long snapper] Jon [Dorenbos] and [holder] Mat [McBriar]. They’ve been great. I want to be placed in a tough situation, and if a kicker didn’t want that, he wouldn’t be any good. I want to be in a situation where I want to play in the Super Bowl and be there and have that pressure on me to win. I have to remain even keeled, and it’s always the next one that matters. I am pretty much a perfectionist.”
Henery has certainly been one near-perfect point this season.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.